During the composition of the symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, that he wanted "very much" to dedicate it to her, and that he would write on it "Dedicated to My Best Friend". He had begun composing the symphony not long after Meck had entered his life. He would complete it in the aftermath of his catastrophic marriage and claimed she would find in it "an echo of your most intimate thoughts and emotions." The dedication was significant in more than one way. One important facet of the paternalistic nature of Russian society was that, in artistic patronage, patron and artist were considered equals. Dedications of works to patrons were not gestures of humble gratitude but expressions of artistic partnership. By dedicating the Fourth Symphony to her, he was affirming her as an equal partner in its creation.
It is also due to Madame von Meck that, at her request, Tchaikovsky wrote a program explaining the symphony. This action encouraged numerous writers to quote it instead of focusing on the symphony's purely musical qualities, including what Hans Keller termed "one of the most towering symphonic structures in our whole literature" in the opening movement. This program hindered acceptance of the symphony for many years, prejudicing Alfred Einstein and other musicologists against it. But this must be seen in the context of Einstein's general lack of sympathy for Tchaikovsky's music.
But despite this negative impact on the symphony's reception history, the composer's program gives one very telling clue regarding the work's musical architecture. Assertions to the effect that "the first movement represents Fate" are oversimplifications: according to a letter the composer wrote to Madame von Meck in 1878, it is actually the fanfare first heard at the opening ("the kernel, the quintessence, the chief thought of the whole symphony") that stands for "Fate", with this being "the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness ... There is nothing to be done but to submit to it and lament in vain". As the composer explained it, the programme of the first movement is—"roughly"—that "all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness ...". He went on: "No haven exists ... Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths".
The composer's description of the symphony's opening fanfare as a metaphor for "Fate" becomes more telling in the context of a letter he wrote Sergei Taneyev. He wrote Taneyev that the Fourth Symphony was both program music and a reflection of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the central idea of its program. Keller has mentioned a parallel between the four-note motif which opens Beethoven's Fifth and the fanfare at the outset of Tchaikovsky's Fourth. Like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky uses his fanfare as a structural marker. Moreover, because of both the length and unorthodox form of the symphony, he may have felt using such a marker was a musical necessity.
The symphony is in four movements:
- Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima (F Minor) - Moderato assai, quasi Andante (B Major - F Major) - Allegro vivo (F Minor)
- Andantino in modo di canzona (B-flat minor - F major - B-flat minor)
- Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato — Allegro (F major - Trio in A major)
Strings play pizzicato throughout this movement. They are joined by the woodwinds later when an oboe's long, high A signals the start of the A major Trio section. Later, the brass instruments come in, playing very quietly and staccato. The three groups (strings, woodwinds, and brass) are the only groups that play; there is no percussion in this movement except for the timpani, as in the previous movement. It ends quietly with pizzicato strings.
- Finale: Allegro con fuoco (F major)
In the vigorous finale, Tchaikovsky incorporates a famous Russian folk song, "In the Field Stood a Birch Tree", as the secondary theme (firstly in A minor, the second time in B flat minor and then in D minor, whch leads to the A-flat phrase of the first movement, with the 'lightning bolts', with cymbals added, being much louder. The coda is also vigorous and triumphant.
The symphony is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.
The Fourth Symphony is where Tchaikovsky's struggles with Western sonata form came to a head. In some ways he was not alone. The Romantics in general were never natural symphonists because music was to them primarily evocative and biographical. Western musical form, as developed primarily by Germanic composers, was analytical and architectural; it simply was not designed to handle the personal emotions the Romantics wished to express. The difference with Tchaikovsky was that while the other Romantics remained generally autobiographical in what they wanted to express, he became more specific and, consequently, more intense.
In his first three symphonies he had striven to stay within strict Western form. The turbulent changes in his personal life, including his marital crisis, now led him to write music so strongly personal and expressive that structural matters could not stay as they had been. Beginning with the Fourth Symphony, the symphony served as a human document—dramatic, autobiographical, concerned not with everyday things but with things psychological. This was because Tchaikovsky's creative impulses had become unprecedentedly personal, urgent, capable of enormous expressive forcefulness, even violence.
Along with this emotional urgency came an unprecedented flow of melody. Here, Tchaikovsky developed his gift for tunefulness more freely and deployed it more liberally than he had previously. Paradoxically, this great asset also became his greatest enemy in terms of form. A melody is complete on its own terms. Because of this completeness, it stands apart from other themes meant not only to contrast, but more importantly to interact and build upon one another naturally. This dominance of one melody can ruin the balance and proportion Western classical composers considered the proper beauties of sonata form.
The combination of emotional urgency and supercharged melody precluded musical development not only because of the completeness of the melody, but also because the melody's emotional content was already in full bloom, with all the emotional and musical interest it could bear. Since musical development is a creative unfolding of the latent possibilities—rhythmic, melodic and harmonic—of contrasting themes, there was literally nothing to develop further. The only course of action left was to substitute repetition for true development—in other words, to say again in a different way what has already been said and to trust the beauty and significance of what are fundamentally variations to supply the place of a development section as demanded by sonata form.
Like "The Five," Tchaikovsky found that with a loose symphonic-poem type of structure pioneered by Franz Liszt, he could combine large-scale orchestral writing with emotions and instrumental colors toward which he gravitated naturally. The result was a symphonic hybrid, a cross between the primarily architectural form of the symphony and the primarily "literary" or "poetic" form of the symphonic poem. This is why he could write to Nadezhda von Meck, regarding the Fourth Symphony,
This hybrid form allowed Tchaikovsky to fall back on a structure that was basically a series of self-contained sections, emphasizing the contrast between these sections, however violent, while allowing the consequent drama to erupt in the context of one movement. This perhaps seemed only natural—many Russian folk songs are actually a series of variations on one basic shape or pattern of a few notes, so it was something with which Tchaikovsky was already familiar. The problem was that it did not solve the problem of inertia. The key of the music could change, but the music itself would basically repeat itself, remaining static in the Western sense of musical architecture.
However, structure in Tchaikovsky's work became more than purely architecture. Melody, tonality, rhythm and orchestral timbres work together to form an indivisible whole. In the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, he introduces a highly rhythmic theme in the brass. The structure of this movement is made up of a complete series of rotating thirds, from F to A -flat, B D and back to F, then a recapitulation to a third below the tonic. The brass theme delineates each stage of the structure. To heighten drama, he focuses mainly on rhythm, texture and orchestral color. The resulting tension in the first movement does not come from a Germanic transformation of themes. It results from rhythmic opposition between the polonaise rhythm of the aggressive "Fate" motif in the brass and the gentler waltz of the first theme, carried alternately by woodwinds and strings.
The finale of this symphony is generally judged by its success in rounding off the symphonic cycle into a cohesive whole. Tchaikovsky here repeats the "Fate" motif which opened the piece. However, it could be said to appeal to the patriotic and heroic feelings of his aristocratic listeners. This would place it in line with the finales of Tchaikovsky's three earlier symphonies as an apotheosis in Imperial style.
Initial critical reaction to the work was unfavorable. Tchaikovsky was in Florence, Italy when the symphony was premiered and received word only from von Meck at first. His closest friends were so unsure about parts of the work that they did not say anything to him. A telegram from Rubinstein and the other musicians involved in the performances assured him only that the symphony had been well played. After a month, the composer wrote to Sergei Taneyev. Taneyev replied promptly and, as per his nature, all too honestly. Taneyev had found the symphony excellent in parts but less impressive overall. While he admired the first movement, he also considered it overlong. This, he thought, gave the work as a whole the feeling of a symphonic poem with three additional movements attached to justify it being called a symphony. Rubinstein had liked the finale best. Tchaikovsky replied defensively to Taneyev but was appreciative of his candor. He also suspected—rightly, it turned out—that Taneyev was hiding the news of a lukewarm reception to the premiere. At its St. Petersburg premiere the following November, the symphony was better received.
Reaction to the premiere in the United States was also negative. In 1890 a reviewer for the New York Post wrote, "The Fourth Tchaikovsky Symphony proved to be one of the most thoroughly Russian, i.e. semi-barbaric, compositions ever heard in the city. ... If Tchaikovsky had called his symphony 'A Sleigh Ride Through Siberia' no one would have found this title inappropriate."
The British premiere was in June 1893, conducted by the composer, who was attending Cambridge University to receive an honorary doctorate, along with Camille Saint-Saëns, Max Bruch and Arrigo Boito (Edvard Grieg was also honoured, but was unable to attend in person). The hall was filled to capacity, and the symphony received great applause after each movement.
A reviewer in Germany in 1897 wrote "The composer's twaddle disturbed my mood. The confusion in brass and the abuse of the kettledrums drove me away!"
In spite of its early critical reviews, the symphony has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire, and remains one of the most frequently performed symphonies of the late 19th century. It is also ranked as one of the best of Tchaikovsky's symphonies.
At least 200 commercial recordings exist of this symphony, including:Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (three times—1958 and 1975 CBS/Sony and 1989 live DG)
George Szell conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Igor Markevitch conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (recorded Wembley Town Hall, 19–21 October 1963; Philips)
Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra
Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra
Willem Mengelberg conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim conducting the New York Philharmonic and later the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker
Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Mariss Jansons conducting the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel conducting the Cleveland Orchestra
Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra (recorded Boston 29 January 1959; RCA Victor)
Claudio Abbado conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony
Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded Royal Festival Hall, 19 March 2011)
A very brief part (1–2 seconds) of the last movement of Symphony No. 4 can be heard in the opening of Pink Floyd's song, "Wish You Were Here" (1975), taken from the album of the same name. It was recorded from a radio broadcast via a car radio.
Symphony No. 4 is used as a soundtrack for Osamu Tezuka's experimental film "The Legend of the Forest" (1987). The film was not completed, only the first and fourth movement were finished. In 2014, Tezuka’s son Macoto Tezka (Black Jack, Akuemon) premiered Part 2, featuring the music from the second movement, at the 15th Hiroshima International Animation Festival.
In the movie What a Way to Go! (1964), with Shirley MacLaine and Paul Newman, automatic painting robots strangle Newman as they paint to Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony and explode, killing him.
In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the episode "The Day of Sagittarius" uses the finale of the Symphony No. 4 in the climax of the dramatic sequence of the SOS Brigade's battle with the Computer Research Society in the game The Day of Sagittarius III.